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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Number 278: April 2020

Readings in Nonviolence features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome).

Gandhi the organiser

Bob Overy (2019), Gandhi the Organiser—How he shaped a nationwide rebellion: India 1915-1922, Irene Publishing, Sweden, pp. 435. Available as printed copy or e-book, see and

Book review by Iain Atack

Bob Overy has written a fascinating account of a crucial time in Gandhi’s work as a political strategist and nonviolent campaigner. The book focuses on a seminal period both in Gandhi’s life and the struggle for Indian independence from British colonial rule, from his return to India from South Africa in 1915 to his recognition as a leader of national significance and impact in the early 1920s. One of the central themes of the book is that many of the ideas and methods we now associate with Gandhi’s approach to the use of nonviolence were developed and tested during this period. This is well-supported by Overy’s detailed examination of some of the significant campaigns instigated and led by Gandhi at both local and national levels during this time.

Overy examines the so-called Rowlatt Satyagraha campaign of 1919 in some detail, for example, in Chapter 3. The Rowlatt Bills extended emergency powers in India following the end of World War I in an effort by the British to suppress the Indian independence campaign. Gandhi saw the Rowlatt Bills as an opportunity to extend the methods of satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, that he had developed in South Africa and subsequently in local level campaigns in India to the national level because of the extent of opposition and outrage they aroused.

One of the characteristics of Gandhi as a political organiser that Overy stresses is Gandhi’s flexibility and responsiveness to context and the requirements of particular campaigns. Resistance to the Rowlatt Bills, for example, involved “a two-tier level of commitment”, involving those “who were ready to engage in civil disobedience” as well as those prepared to engage in a one-day hartal (on April 6), a traditional form of protest in India involving the closure of markets and shops and a refusal to work for a specified period of time (p. 101). The hartal itself “was not…an act of civil disobedience because it did not involve challenging any laws”, and for this reason could be open to much wider participation (pp. 108-9). “It has been estimated that 80 percent of shops closed in Bombay on April 6” (p. 93).

One of the lessons Gandhi learned, according to Overy, concerned the difficulties in maintaining nonviolent discipline in mass-based campaigns at the national level as distinct from the local level. The national scale of the Rowlatt Satyagraha posed new problems of organisation, coordination and communication (p. 97) and resulted in widespread unrest and violence following Gandhi’s arrest while on a train from Bombay to Delhi. The infamous massacre at Amritsar in the Punjab, in which British soldiers under the command of General Dyer fired into a large open-air meeting in the Jallianwala Bagh, also occurred in April 1919 (on April 13) in the context of unrest associated with the Rowlatt Bills. This massacre and the subsequent declaration of martial law and the imposition of a “regime of repression” in the Punjab hardened opposition within India against British colonial rule and raised awareness of its negative and iniquitous consequences internationally (pp. 94-95).

A central feature of Overy’s book concerns the importance of the so-called “constructive programme” to Gandhi’s use of nonviolence as a method of political action. This emphasis on the constructive programme was Gandhi’s response to the question of how to organise nonviolence successfully on a mass scale, prompted by the collapse of the Rowlatt Satyagraha. Gandhi’s constructive programme reflected both his commitment to profound social change as well as his detailed understanding of the Indian context. Overy suggests that Gandhi’s awareness of the importance of the constructive programme for the effective use of nonviolence began in the early 1920s and continued to develop throughout his career of nonviolent activism. The chief emphasis of the constructive programme in the 1920s was on Hindu-Muslim unity, the abolition of untouchability as a component of the Indian caste system, and the swadeshi campaign to replace imported cloth with village-level production of cloth (or khadi), although “[b]y the 1940s, the programme consisted of 18 items” (p. 16).

Overy provides a detailed discussion of the relationship between civil disobedience and the constructive programme in Chapter 4, derived from Gandhi’s pamphlet Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place (pp. 138ff). The core of Gandhi’s approach is that the constructive programme becomes increasingly important the larger the scale of the campaign and the wider the scope of the issue (p. 141). A campaign of civil disobedience on its own can be successful in responding to specific grievances at a local level, for example, but as the focus expanded to campaigning at the national level on issues connected to Indian self-rule the more important the constructive programme became.

Involvement in the constructive programme is essential to prepare a larger number of people for participation in a large-scale campaign of civil resistance or civil disobedience through helping develop the discipline required for sustained nonviolent action for example. Constructive work in India “was designed to discipline the people prior to civil disobedience” and “to provide a link between the national political elite and the peasantry” through “tackling poverty and injustice in the villages”. The “promotion of constructive work helped Gandhi deal with the problem of scale” (p. 367).

Equally important for Gandhi to the scale of a campaign (local versus national), as Overy points out, is the scope of the issue. Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns almost always focused on specific injustices resulting from British rule in India, rather than “the ‘general cause’ of independence” (p. 145). The famous Salt Satyagraha of 1930 is an example of this. This is because the more specific the issue the easier it is to achieve some sort of settlement with one’s political opponents, even though each specific campaign is meant to contribute in some way to resolving the more general problem that gives rise to it (such as colonial rule).

Overy argues that the importance of the constructive programme for Gandhi’s understanding and use of nonviolence has been largely overlooked or ignored by proponents of nonviolent civil resistance in the west (p. 366), and that this needs to be rectified. The role of the constructive programme “is almost entirely missing” from Gene Sharp’s hugely influential three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action (pp. 370-371), for example. Overy claims, however, that for Gandhi nonviolence and satyagraha are more than alternatives to violence as effective methods for conducting political and social conflict, as emphasised by proponents of pragmatic nonviolence such as Sharp. Nonviolence also provides both a vision of and contains mechanisms for achieving a new social order, in the form of the constructive programme.

Overy’s central point is that both the constructive programme and civil resistance (including civil disobedience) are complementary and essential components of satyagraha, “which should be seen as a method of making social and political change beyond its undoubted significance as a conflict technique” (p. 403). He concludes that “Gandhian satyagraha should be seen as a method of organising a movement for positive social change”, in which the social and political objectives of the constructive programme are at least as important as nonviolent civil resistance as a conflict technique (p. 411).

Gandhi the Organiser focuses on a specific but hugely important period in Gandhi’s life as a pioneer in both developing methods for applying nonviolence as an effective force for political change as well as of the philosophy and broader social vision within which these methods are embedded. Bob Overy succeeds admirably in extracting more general lessons about the application of nonviolence from his detailed analysis of specific case studies of campaigns initiated and led by Gandhi at both local and national levels in India between 1915 and 1922. The book reflects Overy’s deep engagement both with Gandhi and with nonviolent activism, and we are all the beneficiaries of the information and analysis he provides in this book.

- Iain Atack lectures on the MPhil programme in International Peace Studies in Trinity College Dublin. He is the chairperson of Afri (Action from Ireland) and the Peace Brigades International (PBI) Ireland country group. He is the author of Nonviolence in Political Theory and The Ethics of Peace and War (both Edinburgh University Press).

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